I’ve always thought Leigh Brackett was one of the coolest people behind the scenes in Hollywood. She was a pioneering woman in the world of fiction, where she paved the way for female sci fi authors (though she’d never take such credit in interviews, naming women who inspired her). She had some huge screenwriting credits, helped shape the hardboiled style in noir, helped form the (Howard) Hawksian woman and worked on an iconic space movie that you may know, pictured above. She was prolific, turning out lots of crime, fantasy and “sword and planet” fiction while also working in TV and film. Her style was tough and fast as any male pulp writer, but she was just as good at poetic and delicate prose. She was athletic, an animal lover who lived on a farm, a conservative, a positive, self-effacing, “charming and gracious” lady who was well-liked and highly respected. Self-made on the strength of her talent and hard work, she elbowed her way into fields where female creators were rare, but admirably she never considered or presented herself as a victim. In fact she never felt discriminated against or held back in any way** because she was good at what she did, enjoyed the common interests and “chummy” circle of fellow creatives as well as the support and respect of strong men all through her life. It helped that her success as an author gave her a career apart from Hollywood, because she saw the difficulties and frustrations of the screenwriter’s life for men and women alike. Brackett was the epitome of empowered, a very interesting artist and great role model.
Some highlights of Leigh Brackett’s life and career:
1915: Brackett is born in Los Angeles, an only child raised by her widowed mother and grandparents after her father died of flu. She’s an imaginative and independent girl that likes to dream up and play out swashbuckling and action scenarios. She’s an early reader, and once hooked on Edgar Rice Burrough’s books (she names The Ghosts of Mars as the one that changed her), falls in love with fantastic yarns and by 13 is writing her own action/adventure stories.
1939: She joins the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society and her grandfather urges her to write and try to sell her stories.
1940: Brackett’s first published stories appear in Astounding and Planet Stories magazines, and she met her future husband, writer Edmond Hamilton (space fiction master who originated the idea of the space suit). Her first love is writing sci fi but she considers herself too slow a writer in too tight a market to earn enough money, so she tries her hand at crime fiction.
1944: Her first novel, No Good From a Corpse, about a Southern California private detective, comes out and makes an impression on Howard Hawks. Brackett has a friend who works at Howard Hawks’ favourite bookstore. That friend makes sure to include and recommend Brackett’s novel in his buy pile. Hawks is indeed impressed, mainly with Brackett’s sharp and lively dialogue, and asks his agent to get “that Brackett guy” to collaborate on The Big Sleep script with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman. Hawks is amused when the guy that shows up is a girl.
It’s Brackett’s first movie assignment, and the first of her six screenplays with Hawks. They get along instantly, he puts her under personal contract to him, and will in the years to come, pay her high compliment by saying she writes like a man. Another good Big Sleep anecdote has star Humphrey Bogart assuming Brackett wrote lines that he disliked, because they were overly soft and gentlemanly. Turns out Faulkner wrote the milder material and Brackett his favourite dialogue.
When Brackett was called to Hollywood she was almost done writing “Lorelei of the Red Mist” and with a deadline looming, handed it off to friend and mentor Ray Bradbury to finish.
1945: Screenplay credit for The Vampire’s Ghost, adapted from her story.
1946: Screenplay for Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt.
1947: Ghost writes George Sanders’ novel Stranger At Home.
1949: Introduces the character Eric John Stark, her archetypal hero, an interplanetary swashbuckler who’d have several fictional adventures through the next decades.
1954: Screenplay credit for the thriller The Stranger Came Home, based on her novel.
1959: Screenplay (with Jules Furthman) for Rio Bravo (one of the greatest things ever written as far as I’m concerned). With Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep and now this, Brackett deservedly gets credit for creating the feisty, tough and stubborn Hawksian woman.
that year her book An Eye for an Eye (1957) was the basis for the CBS series Markham (1959–60)
1961: Screenplay for the western Gold of the Seven Saints.
1962: Screenplay for Hatari! Also that year, her book The Tiger Among Us (1957) was made into the movie 13 West Street.
1963: Writes two episodes of TV’s The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: “Terror at Northfield” and “Death of a Cop.”
1966: Brackett based her script for El Dorado on Harry Brown’s book The Stars in Their Courses. She considered it her finest screenwriting, and Hawks and John Wayne loved it, but as production went on, Hawks became more interested in making what Brackett called “The Son of Rio Bravo Rides Again.” Hawks had his pet plots, didn’t feel he told that particular story properly and wanted to do it right this time. He asked Brackett to focus on the element of the aging gunfighter who can’t go it alone anymore, and even asked her to include a scene that had been cut from Rio Bravo. She protested and argued her views, but tried her best to make the script different and original.*** The film was a hit.
1970: Rio Lobo was Brackett’s final collaboration with Hawks and his last movie.
1973: Works with Robert Altman on The Long Goodbye.
1975: Writes “The Four Pound Brick” episode of The Rockford Files.
1977: Brackett is assigned the screenplay for Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
1978: Right after finishing her draft of Empire and handing it in to Fox, Brackett dies of skin cancer.
1978: John Carpenter names the Sheriff in Halloween “Leigh Brackett,” the first place I heard the name.
***Rio Bravo was the first in an informal trilogy (Cine Archive)